By Yuki Suetsugi | Published digitally by Kodansha Comics
Chihayafuru is a long-running josei sports manga series about a girl who discovers a passion for the Japanese card game, karuta. The very factors that made me sure I’d love the series also made it an unlikely licensing prospect. Happily, Kodansha Comics has started releasing it digitally! I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happened.
In the opening pages, we get a glimpse of a teenage Chihaya Amase during an intense match, then promptly travel six years into the past. At twelve, Chihaya had no dream other than seeing her older pageant-entering sister, Chitose, become “number one in Japan.” When she befriends transfer student Arata Wataya, who’s been shunned by classmates for his poverty and regional dialect, he tells her that her dreams should be about herself. Fired up by Wataya’s speed and intensity at karuta, Chihaya can’t help but attempt to score at least one card off of him, and the delight on Wataya’s face as he finally makes a friend who shares his passion is poignant.
As Chihaya (and the audience) learns more about karuta, Wataya eventually gains the respect of his classmates for his skill, prompting Taichi Mashima, the ringleader of the bullies, to cheat against him in a school tournament. I quite liked that we see Mashima’s motivations—his horrid mother flat out tells him that if you don’t think you can win at something, you shouldn’t even try—and that, afterwards, he makes his own decisions about what is right and what is important to him. The three kids become friends and, after joining a karuta club in their neighborhood, conclude the first volume by entering an elementary tournament as a team.
In several ways, Chihayafuru reminds me of Hikaru no Go. You’ve got the sixth-grade protagonist discovering enthusiasm for a traditional game. She makes a small group of friends who share a deep love of the game, and they compete together as a team. And yet, there is the inescapable fact that they won’t be able to stay together forever. Mashima’s path will take him to a prestigious middle school while the ill health of Wataya’s grandfather compels him to return to his hometown. Will Chihaya continue on her own? Presumably, like Hikaru, she will make new friends at each stage of her journey, and potentially face Wataya again as a rival in future.
As usual, what I really loved most was Chihaya finding the place she belonged, and the outlet in which her specific skills—quick reaction time, acute vision, and an extremely keen sense of hearing—are recognized and appreciated. Her sister becomes positively odious as she realizes Chihaya now has something in her life to work towards besides Chitose’s fame—“All Chihaya needs to do is look at me and tell me how amazing I am”—and I wonder how far she’ll go to sabotage her little sister’s ambitions, but the opening pages show us a Chihaya still deeply dedicated to the game, so I’m sure she’ll remain undeterred.
I really, really loved this debut volume and eagerly look forward to more!
Chihayafuru is ongoing in Japan, where the 34th volume will be published next week.
Review copy provided by the publisher.